Reno Aces set to open season at Fresno

Ildelmaro Vargas set a Reno record last season by hitting in 35 straight games.

Ildelmaro Vargas set a Reno record last season by hitting in 35 straight games.

The crack of a bat, the snap of leather, the whizzing of baseballs across the infield … and that means professional baseball has arrived in Northern Nevada for both players and fans.

After spending more than a month and a half in Arizona for spring training, the boys of summer are back in Reno to begin the 2019 baseball season with an invigorated feel for America’s pastime and a new manager to guide the Aces as they enter their 11th season in Reno.

While players come and go in the Minor Leagues and some eventually find success in the Big Leagues, this year’s Reno Aces — the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Triple-A affiliate in the Pacific Coast League — begin their season on the road Thursday at Fresno and return to Reno for Tuesday’s home opener against Albuquerque.

For new skipper Chris Cron, this year will indeed be his own Field of Dreams.

“Obviously, I’m a big fan of Reno and looking forward to a great summer,” said the 54-year-old Cron, who had been the Diamondbacks’ Minor League hitting instructor since 2014.

Additionally, Cron has the opportunity to coach his youngest son, Kevin, the Aces’ returning third baseman who also works the bag at first. The elder Cron said he’s personally looking forward to working with the younger players and to helping them achieve their dreams of playing in Major League baseball. He wants to be the person who notifies a player for his first-time call up.

“The last five years I’ve been a hitting coordinator, and I’ve missed that part of the managing side of it where I didn’t get to do that, but now I have 25 guys on the team, and I hope all 25 at some point get the chance to play in the Big Leagues,” Cron said.

Cron, the fourth Aces manager in the team’s 11-year history in Reno, is entering his 35th season in pro baseball as both a manager and player.

“Chris has spent a great deal of time in Reno over the past five years and we are excited to have him at the helm full-time in 2019,” Aces General Manager Emily Jaenson said after Cron became the team’s new manager. “Chris follows in great footsteps of Brett Butler, Phil Nevin and Greg Gross. I am confident he will represent the Aces well on the field and in our community.”

Cron has more than 19 years of managerial experience at every level in the minor leagues, winning Manager of the Year in the California League in 1998 and Pioneer League in 2008. Cron led his teams to eight playoff appearances and has compiled a 1,127-1,149 record.

With the opportunity to return to the field and manage a team, Cron has been looking at all aspects of the game beginning with the infield.

“I was an infielder, so my eyes are always drawn to the infield,” he said. “We are fortunate to have other coaches on the bench that have played, and they’re in charge of certain areas of the field. As a manager you’re eyes have to go all over the place. I love watching hitters hit and players play.”

Kevin Cron anchors the nucleus of new and returning players to the Aces’ lineup. The 6-foot-5-inch infielder hit .309 in 2018 and banged out 22 home runs, 97 RBIs and 28 doubles. During this year’s spring training, he hit .297, which included a pair of home runs, in 24 plate appearances. A big question mark looms across the infield to first base where Christian Walker roamed for the Aces. Walker is on the Diamondbacks, but in his first year with the Aces in 2017, he batted .309 with 32 home runs and was named the PCL Player of the Year. He batted .299 last year.

Kevin Cron, whose older brother pays for Minnesota, said he had a good spring and begins the 2019 season 100 percent healthy.

“I’m healthy, no injuries,” said the former Texas Christian University star. “I’m ready to go.”

Cron said he’s comfortable playing at either third base or first and will be ready to play wherever the coaches want him. During the past season, Cron said he and Walker learned from each other, Walker offered good advice to him throughout the year.

“He’s had a heck of a career so far,” Cron said of the former Aces’ first baseman. “He’s off to a good start.”

As of Monday, Walker is batting .545 in 11 at-bats for Arizona with six hits including two homers and five RBI.

“You never know what will click for you … a teammate or a coach,” Cron said. “You need to open yourself to learning and to new ideas.”

Infielder Idelmaro Vargas began the 2019 season with Arizona but was optioned to Reno on Monday.

Vargas put together the longest hitting streak in Aces’ history in 2018 at 35 games and the fifth longest in the Pacific Coast League — a stretch that lasted almost six weeks.

He joined exclusive company in the PCL along with the legendary Joe DiMaggio, who hit safely in 61 straight games while playing for the San Francisco Seals in 1933. Anther utility infielder familiar to Aces’ fans is Kelby Tomlinson, who divided his time between Sacramento and the San Francisco Giants. While with Sacramento, he batted .304.

Juniel Querecuto played in 68 games for Reno last season after being called up from Jackson, the Double-A team. Likewise, Cody Decker divided his time between Jackson and Reno, where he played 63 games and batted .268 with nine home runs and 29 RBIs.

Middle infielder Domingo Leyba will be a newcomer. He missed much of 2017 with a shoulder injury and returned to Jackson in 2018. Last season he hit .269 with five home runs, 30 RBIs, 43 runs and 35 walks.

Chris Cron said the pitching will be strong but will face challenges.

“It will be hit and miss in Reno … it’s hard to pitch in Reno,” he said.

Although he bypassed Reno to the Diamondbacks, Jon Christopher Duplantier is one of Arizona’s top prospects who may or may not see action in Reno this season. Currently, he’s on the D-backs’ roster, having entered 2019 rated by Baseball America as having the Best Curveball in the D-backs’ system and in 2018, Duplantier was rated as having the Best Control in the organization.

With Jackson in 2018, he finished 5-1 with a 2.69 ERA, 68 strikeouts, 28 walks and a .217 opponent average in 14 starts.

Right-handed pitcher Taylor Clarke led the Aces in wins and strikeouts in 2018, going 13-8 with a 4.03 ERA, 125 strikeouts in 152 innings. Clarke, who returns to Reno for his third season, gave up three earned runs in 7 1/3 innings this spring.

Another right-handed pitcher is Joel Payamps, who went 9-4 in 2018 with a 2.90 ERA in 90 innings for Jackson. He struggled at 0-4 in Reno with a 7.18 ERA in 26 1/3 innings.

Jason Creasy appeared in six games for Visalia in 2018. In 6.2 innings of work, the right-hander struck out 10.

Local favorite Braden Shipley has been with Reno for four seasons. He was 6-4 last season, but his ERA jumped to 5.81. He fanned 58 and walked 36 in 74 innings. During the past four seasons, Shipley has experienced the taste of Major League Baseball with the Diamondbacks. The Diamondbacks selected Shipley 15th in the first round of the 2013 MLB draft. His career as a Wolf Pack earned him Mountain West Co-Pitcher of the Year in 2013 with a 5-3 record and a 2.76 ERA in the conference.

Shipley said he feels healthier and ready to pitch this season.

“I had a great spring,” he said. “For the first time in three years, I feel healthy … that is a positive for me. I threw the ball great.”

Shipley said he worked on several different aspects of his pitching game, and he feels he was successful in attacking the hitters. After four years in Triple-A ball, Shipley still has that strong desire to pitch in the Major Leagues.

“Baseball is a sport,” he said. “You play because you love to do it.”

Shipley recognizes he needs to relax more when he’s on the mound. It becomes mind over matter.

“I’ve put too much pressure on myself to be somebody I’m not,” Shipley explained. “I need to be mentally prepared for any situation.”

The Medford, Oregon, native’s approach is looking different.

“Day by day I’ll get more work in,” he added. “I pitch one inning. I get three outs. Two innings, six outs.”

The outfield will have a totally new look. Gone is another fan favorite and one of the team’s leading hitter, Socrates Brito, who batter over .300. The San Diego Padres claimed Brito off waivers from Arizona on March 27 but then released him four days later.

Returning for his second year in Reno is Yasmany Tomas, who batted .262 and drove in 65 runs. The veteran slugger is known for his power, and he hit 31 home runs while with the D-backs in 2016.

Among the other outfielders are Abraham Almonte, who appeared in 50 games with Kansas City in 2018. He hit .179 with 134 at-bats and finished with six extra-base hits. Andrew Aplin appeared in 63 games with the Tacoma Rainiers and hit .265 with 17 doubles.

Rob Refsnyder split time between the International League champion Durham Bulls and Tampa Bay Rays in 2018. In 40 games with the Rays, Refsnyder hit .167 with 23 total bases.

Jeffrey Baez played 88 games with Double-A Tennessee last season and hit .262 with seven home runs and 14 doubles en route to a Mid-Season All-Star selection.

Matt Szczur appeared in 57 games with the San Diego Padres in 2018. He hit .187 with 20 total bases and six RBI.

Catching are Tyler Heineman, who played in 72 games with Double-A Biloxi in 2018 where he hit .254 and added 15 extra-base hits, and Caleb Joseph, who played in 82 games with Baltimore.

Cron’s coaching staff includes Greg Gross, who returns for his seventh season in the Biggest Little City after leading the team to a second place finish in the Pacific Northern Division with a 72-68 record last year. Jason Camilli enters his second season as Reno’s hitting coach and eighth with Arizona. Reno was third in the PCL with a .284 team batting average and as a team, the Aces hit 156 home runs last season.

Jeff Bajenaru was named pitching coach, his first with Reno, earlier this year. He was the 2017 California League Coach of the Year for the Visalia Rawhide.


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